Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


Although The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is climate change fiction it was a recommendation by a top climate scientist that got me reading it.

It is a gripping explanation of what we have ahead and puts so much focus on Wet Bulb temperature 35oC that I now have a wet and dry bulb thermometer installed in my garden. At this temperature the human body is unable to cool down via sweating. According to the Economist even young healthy people wearing light clothing—regardless of whether they are parked in front of a fan, in the shade or have unlimited water to drink—will die in about six hours.

It would be reached at an actual temperature of 45°C if relative humidity were 50%, or at about 39°C if humidity were 75%.  There are already big numbers of heat related excess deaths every summer in Europe as the dry bulb temperature regularly rises above 40oC. This has been highlighted in recent weeks by the heat domes of extended record high temperatures we have seen in China, the USA and around the Mediterranean into North Africa.

Mediterranean and the Global South are important for leather

These deaths are most discussed in terms of vulnerable groups, and for Europe the impact on tourism is now high on the agenda especially where wildfires have added to activity limiting temperatures. Longer term an even more consequential impact will be felt by industry. For leather, the Mediterranean and the Global South, which includes China and India, are of major importance.

Tanneries and shoe factories are not normally air conditioned yet these new temperature levels will not permit carrying on as normal. Eleni Myrivili, the Chief Heat Officer for the UN’s human settlement programme, was recently quoted saying that many people, particularly in the Mediterranean and Middle East, mistakenly believed they were used to hot weather and able to cope with it. “People are just starting to realise that this is another beast that we’re dealing with.”

Hours of work, more white roofing, adequate drinking water supplies, more trees wherever possible and less open asphalt and concrete all need urgent consideration by factory owners. A siesta and these necessary mitigation factors alone will not be enough. Air conditioning will be required.

Evidence suggests that higher temperatures will take trillions of dollars out of the global economy and lead to accelerating migration to cooler climates.

Renewable energy

Suddenly the value of excess cheap renewable energy becomes apparent. Not only for areas like desalination, the production of ammonia or even manufacturing steel via electrolysis but for controlling temperatures in the workspace. Most tanneries have opportunities for solar power, some aspects of geothermal and occasionally wind. Many can use their solid wastes to produce gas from anaerobic digestion. Sometimes local laws make harnessing these internally difficult, but ways must be found round these. Equally funding is coming available for climate mitigation in emerging economies and tanners’ organisations should be lobbying for it to go down these routes. National wealth and vital employment are involved.

Livestock supply is also a concern

Tanners will not be ignoring their supply chain where it is the livestock that comes of concern. In advanced economies it is found that dairy herds drop milk yields by over 10% above 25oC and some farmers have installed cooling systems and kept animals inside but are being hit by rising energy costs and having to use the systems for months rather than weeks.

India, Brazil, China and Pakistan are high on the priority list requiring more general adaptation and mitigation for livestock. For most Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMIC) livestock is of major social and economic importance, and we are seeing the critical overlap of the climate, the land and the livelihoods of ordinary people.

We should not forget that livestock generates a big proportion of global agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) and involves 1.3 billion people including almost 930 million poor Africans and South Asians who depend on it for their livelihoods. For many in the global south it is the major income, an insurance, an economic asset and a symbol of wealth.

We have seen increasingly frequent weather events with droughts, floods and rising temperatures making its impact over recent years. Keeping pigs indoors in skyscrapers as seen in China is no solution. It violates animal welfare and risks human health.

African nations have put forward plans for improving soil and grassland while managing overgrazing using the new funding. They need to be sure to consider heat stress and its implications. Yields, quality, disease outbreaks will all deteriorate, and the results are likely to be patchy, creating total disaster in some localities.

A moment to take a lead

It looks like warming is happening much faster than expected and no one really knows the full implications of the warming seas, fast melting glaciers and polar ice. None look good.

But the leather industry does have actions it can take. We should not wait for governments to act and say we will follow the lead of others. It’s the moment to take a lead.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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